On Jonathan Dove’s ‘Seek him that maketh the seven stars’…

November 9th, 2016

There is a lot of contemporary choral music that I like, and there is an equal (if not greater) amount that I don’t like. This isn’t the time to go into this in great detail (though it could be a fun exercise), but suffice to say the choral music of Jonathan Dove’s that I have heard I have admired greatly – especially Seek him that maketh the seven stars. I first encountered this piece on a Tenebrae CD back in 2003 of which this was the stand-out piece amongst a mixed bag of offerings, I have sadly since lost the CD (or my daughter may have hidden it) and that is the main reason that there is a random YouTube video to illuminate my babblings (and I must admit the Tenebrae recording is much better).

For my mind this piece represents much of what is good about contemporary choral music: it is instantly approachable without being one-dimensional, it is powerful and memorable without being just plain loud and it is heart-felt without being mawkish or over-sentimental. Yes, the piece is towards the more ‘popularist’ end of the repertoire but it is not lacking in musical interest, textual awareness and emotional sensitivity – it also gets the job done, which I like.

For those not aware of Dove and his music, he was born in 1959, studied with Robin Holloway in Cambridge before forging a career based around his much loved operatic and choral pieces. The blurb on his publisher’s website states: In all his music, Dove has a strong desire to communicate, to entertain, and to provoke transformative experiences. His musical language is at once immediately appreciated by listeners new to the concert hall and has provided performers, audiences and directors with rich possibilities for interpretation. I guess the words ‘communicate’ and ‘entertain’ gives away much of what he is about.

Seek him that maketh the seven stars is a setting of Amos 5:8; Psalm 139 and begins with a repeated staccato organ motif that sets the twinkling stars of the title, from this rises a solo soprano with the opening melodic line. What follows is a beautifully crafted dialogue between the organ figure with slowly evolving choral lines and more rhythmic choral interjections on the words ‘seek him’ – the effect is both exciting and beguiling. The opening material builds and builds until the great outburst of energy which accompanies the crescendo that ends the first section (2.50 – 3.35).

The following section again revolves around a repeated organ figure, but now in a more driving, insistent fashion that propels the music forward. Harmonic interest is generated through harmonic shifts rather than traditional key changes and the music again swells towards a crescendo, on the words ‘Yea, the darkness shineth’ (4.40 – 4.54). Like the end of the first section, the energy quickly dissipates with a return to the opening mood and material. The final section (5.08 – 6.00) again features an organ figure (I’m spotting a theme here…) now in a slow 7/8 metre with gently intoned lines from the choir. The ending is simple, understated and beautifully balanced, much like the piece as a whole.

So, there you go, a piece of contemporary choral music which I admire greatly. If you are interested in finding out more about Dove’s music you can visit his website here. Also check out the piece The Three Kings which was written for the Festival of Nine Lessons at King’s College, Cambridge in 2000 – just as beautiful and understated.


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